27 October 2016Last updated

Features | The big story

How to understand your teenager’s brain

To protect her boys from teen evils like cyberbullying, screen addiction, eating disorders and mental illness, Zoe Brennan signs up for a teenage parenting course and comes out a winner

By Zoe Brennan
22 Jul 2016 | 12:00 am
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The toddler years are a doddle, they say, compared to the rocky teenage road ahead. It is disaster-strewn and specked with yawning holes into which my own emerging teens could fall. I know this because it is spelt out every day in headlines to which I am magnetically drawn. ‘Slaves to exams’, they scream. ‘Pupils seek counselling for social media anxiety’ and ‘Half our children are screen addicts’.

Recently, Jenny Brown, head teacher at St Albans High School for Girls, added to the mix, claiming that affluent mothers are creating ‘Generation D’ – for dependent.

She sees mothers acting as their children’s best friend rather than authoritative parent, leading to a generation of spoilt youngsters who struggle with the rules of modern life.

Then there’s the shocking rise in young people with stress-related illnesses and mental health problems, with as many as a third self-harming. According to the charity Young Minds, three pupils in every classroom have a diagnosed mental illness, with many more not seeking help.

Exam pressure brings further stress. ‘These days there are lots of expectations on young people in terms of exams and work,’ Nicky Morgan, the UK’s former Secretary of State for Education, recently said. ‘The issue of online, and the pressures of the Internet, bring difficulties. I’m the mother of a seven-year-old, so I haven’t reached the teens yet, but I know that communication can be difficult. I suppose it’s about keeping the dialogue as open as possible.’

As the mother of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old, and a stepson aged 13, I’m concerned. They are all sprouting monster feet and facial hair, and communication is often conducted in low grunts – eyes captive to a screen. I want to protect them from teen evils of cyberbullying, screen addiction, and eating disorders (yes, apparently common in boys). So what steps can I take to help me through these years with healthy, confident children, and my sanity still intact?

In short, is there a magic bullet that can future-proof my teens? I discover two qualified counsellors who promise just that and find myself signing up for the parenting course, Teenagers Translated: Helping Parents Promote Resilient Teens.

I am not the only one searching for answers. When I arrive for the one-day course, 30 people are clustered around the coffee station. We turn ourselves over to Janey Downshire and Naella Grew, perfectly groomed professional mothers who met on a counselling course 10 years ago.

They have seven children between them, aged 17 to 25, and promise to give us a toolkit of strategies. The focus will be on resilience, the cure-all quality that’s the parenting buzzword. ‘If they can bounce back under adverse conditions, they can come out of it without resorting to dysfunctional strategies,’ Naella explains.

So far, so good. They open the floor... and near panic erupts. One elegant blonde, mother of twins, says: ‘The problem is in the bedroom, online – the addictive nature of technology, and [not] knowing what on earth is going on, until there’s a crisis.’

Another talks of her daughter’s eating disorders, laxative abuse, and late nights on the net. There are several mentions of homework battles and anger management.

Janey begins to sketch out the basics of the teenage brain. We are introduced to the logical thinking brain, the limbic feeling brain, and the primitive reactive brain. As in the toddler years, when we see temper tantrums, the years 10-24 see huge brain changes, and what Janey calls ‘behavioural hoo-ha’.

Next, she describes the changes that are taking place – the neural pruning process that sees behavioural habits and patterns emerge. She terms this a use-it-or-lose-it process, likening the pathways to sheep tracks worn with use. We should reinforce positive behaviours at this time, like providing good socialising opportunities, not just online.

‘Having good relationships with your peers should be a source of great comfort and security,’ says Janey. ‘Often, social media has sadly become more of a threat for them, furthering anxiety.’

At the same time, our teens experience a surge in different biochemicals and hormones. Anxiety is the most common emotion. The nuances of our parenting, eye contact, and voice tone, influence brain chemicals. We want to encourage the release of the stable, happy chemical dopamine, instead of stressy, angry cortisol.

But here’s bad news for my kids: computer games produce dopamine, although it is junk food dopamine, according to the gurus.

Good dopamine comes from sport, socialising, getting into hobbies, sharing family meals, dealing with risk and overcoming challenges. We’re advised to ask ourselves: what does my child get his dopamine from?

Janey cautions that youngsters are programmed to take risks because they need to learn from them. Ideally, we should provide opportunities for healthy physical risk, rather than negative online risks or experimentation with banned substances. As an example, she tells us her son recently broke his arm skiing, recklessly ruining his travel plans, but she prompted him to learn from this, rather than criticising. I file this under things to aspire to.

Emotional processing hasn’t developed fully yet, hence the teenage grunt. Stress biochemicals are prone to flood the brain, shutting the door to the thinking brain and inducing what Janey calls emotional hijack or red mist. Instead of greeting it with our own hysteria, we must remain calm. I know this scenario from my own home: the raised voices, door slamming, flouncing – all prompting me to issue wild, unenforceable punishments in a screechy voice.

When Janey describes the factors at play, I’m able to consider our roles more dispassionately. I’ll try to follow her lead. This means saying to myself: ‘I think we’re are now in hijack territory. I know not to roll out one of my carefully crafted lectures, because my child’s cortex is not working. I will pick a moment when the door to his rational brain has reopened.’ This sounds a little Stepford Wife, but is perhaps better than the mad harpy look.

Do any of the strategies help in my own home? We’re certainly having more family dinners. Sometimes this is stressful, but more often than not, we do have proper conversation and laughter.

We’re prioritising having fun, going to the cinema together, country walks and hanging out, all healthy dopamine triggers. I’m trying to nag less about homework, instead setting the right environment: a snack, desk space, and quiet. I let them fail, taking their inadequate homework to school for teachers to mark and deal with. Some of this new calm is definitely working.

As Janey says: ‘We need less focus on the problem and more focus on creating the right climate for teenagers to thrive in.’

I agree.

How to handle teens

■ When communicating with the male teenage brain, talk in a low voice clearly and slowly. A high pitch and lots of words, and your message is lost.

■ Sleep is a basic teenage need. Nine hours of uninterrupted sleep is considered to be the optimum, so insist that screens – including mobiles – are turned off at a reasonable hour.

■ Promote old-fashioned face-to-face socialising via family meals, and encourage them to bring friends home.

■ Don’t allow emotions to remain unexpressed.

■ Demonstrate calm problem-solving. Don’t flap when things go wrong.

■ Try one of their advanced computer games yourself, see how it draws you in and visualise how you’d feel if you were interrupted by, ‘Supper’s ready!’

■ Implement a plan on computer use with your child. This will encourage collaboration and self-discipline.

■ A good rule of thumb is the hour rule – for every hour in front of a screen, they must spend an hour doing something physical, ideally outdoors.

■ Discuss rather than lecture to promote independent thinking and learning.

■ Don’t be afraid to apologise when necessary.

By Zoe Brennan

By Zoe Brennan